In the aftermath of the racist, misogynist outburst that got talkshow host Don Imus dropped from CBS radio and MSNBC—referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos”—a Washington Post editorial (4/10/07) posed a question many critics have been asking for years: How do prestigious journalists defend their cozy relationship with a well-known bigot?
As the Post put it: “But those who bask in the glow of his radio show ought to consider whether they should continue doing so. After all, you’re judged by the company you keep.” Since discovering Imus’ long record of bigotry, misogyny and homophobia is not difficult (FAIR Action Alert, 4/9/07), it’s a question reporters should have been asking long ago—FAIR posed the very same question to NBC’s Tim Russert six years ago, for example (Action Alert, 3/1/00).
When journalist Phil Nobile (Tom Paine.com, 6/28/01) presented many top pundits with evidence of Imus’ bigotry, few (of the white ones, anyway) seemed to think what Imus was saying should affect their decision to appear on his program. Nobile noted that Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz wrote in his 1996 book Hot Air that “Imus’ sexist, homophobic and politically incorrect routines echo what many journalists joke about in private.”
Really? Do Washington journalists really call people “thieving Jews”—and then make mock apologies, saying that the phrase is “redundant” (Imus in the Morning, 12/15/04)? Did they really call Clinton’s attorney general “old Bigfoot shaky Janet Reno,” taunting her for her Parkinson’s disease (Imus in the Morning, 6/12/01)? Do they really laugh uproariously at the news of hundreds of Haitians drowning (Imus in the Morning, 3/20-24/00)? If so, Kurtz has been sitting on a great many scoops.
Whatever their private conversations had been, many pundits were forced by the controversy to answer questions about their association with Imus, and those answers are worth documenting. Appearing on the Imus in the Morning show on April 9, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman explained:
Fineman seemed to be suggesting that Imus’ brand of racism was acceptable not too long ago—at least before Barack Obama was able to raise significant campaign donations.
On PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (4/9/07), former Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant rejected the notion that appearing with Imus gave some form of cover to his bigotry:
Those words stand in contrast with what Oliphant said on Imus’ show that very morning:
The train went off the tracks, which, you know, can happen to anybody. And, of course, what counts when the train goes off the tracks is what you then do. . . . Those of us . . . who know better have a moral obligation to stand up and say to you, “Solidarity forever, pal.”
That’s not enabling?
Other media defenders point out that Imus does charity work, as if this gives him more room to be a racist. As USA Today’s Peter Johnson noted (4/10/07), “His politically incorrect satire has been tempered by an intellectual and considerate side: He runs a camp for sick kids, cares about politics and has an eye for books that can catapult them onto the best-seller list.” (As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out—3/24/05—Imus’ ranch spends $3,000 a night to host each child; other organizations that do similar work spend about one-tenth as much.)
Appearing on the CBS Early Show (4/10/07), CNN host Lou Dobbs said much the same. While calling Imus’ remarks “inexcusable,” Dobbs went on to offer what sounded very much like an excuse:
NBC reporter David Gregory (MSNBC, 4/9/07) stressed that “Imus is a good man,” and that “this is a difficult time, not just because of the hurt that he has inflicted and what he said, as he tries to deal with it, but for all of us who are on the program and certainly don’t want to be associated with this kind of thing that he’s done, as all of this plays out.” Gregory apparently wasn’t so bothered with his association with Imus before this latest controversy.
Others made it seem as if deciding not to appear on the Imus show would be a problem. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas told the New York Times (4/9/07), “He should not have said what he said, obviously. I am going on the show, though. I think if I didn’t, it would be posturing.” To which the Charlotte Observer editorialized (4/10/07), “Which raises this question for Mr. Thomas: What posture would that be—upright?”
In a Los Angeles Times report (4/11/07), some Imus guests appeared to have second thoughts about their silence. CBS reporter Jeff Greenfield said, “That’s something people like me should have challenged him on.” (Greenfield, to his partial credit, did try to raise the issue when he interviewed Imus on Larry King Live—2/24/00.)
Others, meanwhile, seemed to think Imus really meant it when he said he was sorry. CBS host Bob Schieffer condemned Imus’ remarks (L.A. Times, 4/11/07), but “said he would probably go on Imus’ show again, noting that they had been friends for 15 years.” The Times quoted Schieffer: “There’s probably a good lesson for all of us in this. We all need to refocus and be sensitive to these things. Maybe sometimes he’s gone too far and some of us really haven’t been paying attention.”
Newsweek editor Jon Meacham (Washington Post, 4/11/07) said: “We don’t want to rush to judgment. . . . Imus appears genuine about changing the tone, but if there’s any backsliding, then it’s over as far as we’re concerned.”
Pundits who made such assessments might have considered that this was not the first time Imus has appeared to sound contrite about his words, so it’s hard to know why to believe him this time around. In a recent Vanity Fair profile (2/06), Imus said: “I regret the times I’ve been mean to people. . . . It’s fine to pick on people who can defend themselves and deserve it. Some people don’t deserve to be picked on who I picked on, so I don’t do it anymore.”
He made a similar pledge on his show years earlier (3/4/00):
Given Imus’ repeatedly violated vows to rein in his racist shtick, one had to look to his pundit friends—his enablers—to show more resolve. Unfortunately, given their co-dependent relationship with the talk host, such resolve was apparently impossible. As Newsweek’s Fineman put it (Imus in the Morning, 4/9/07): “You know, all of us who do your show, you know, we’re part of the gang. And we rely on you the way you rely on us.”